RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia mother is sharing her heartbreaking story in hopes it will provide a helpful — and potentially life-saving — warning for anyone considering a study abroad program.
They can be an effective way to see the world and experience a new culture, language and skills. But as one Virginia mother has learned the hard way, just because your child is getting college credit for the program doesn’t mean it has any connection to the college or university they’re attending — or that anyone is even monitoring the program.
“I talk to him every day, I have this bear that plays his voice,” Richell Dabney says while playing a recording of her son’s voice that reads: “I believe that love is caring.”
That recording Dabney plays is the only way she can still hear her son’s voice.
“This was like the poster child of how you want people to be,” a grieving Dabney said of her son. “His heart, his compassion for people, his generosity.”
Dabney’s 19-year-old son, Damion, was a promising Honors and pre-med student at Old Dominion University. He was beyond excited when a man came to his college lecture and spoke about a week-long study abroad. It was a medical education trip organized by The Tropical Pathology and Infectious Disease Association.
“All he could think about was helping people,” Dabney said.
Mom approved the trip, which was supposed to be a once-in-a lifetime experience, working with tribes in the jungles of Peru.
“He was telling me the next day they were excited because they were going down river,” Dabney recalled.
Damion Skyped with his mom the night before that river trip in 2014. It would be the last time she ever spoke to him.
Dabney remembers the phone call, “He said, ‘I’m sorry, but he is gone.'”
It was a ‘shocking’ and brief call from the program’s director, Doctor Lane Rolling.
He told her, “Damion is gone, Damion died.”
To this day, what happened is a mystery. All she knows is Damion, who had no prior health issues and just had a physical for the trip, suddenly collapsed and died.
She also learned that the medical education trip lacked medical supplies.
“They had nothing; he was with doctors,” Dabney said. “I would have never thought that a kid from a first world country would have got third world medical treatment.”
She says she never heard from the study abroad program again. What shocked her even more was the response she received from ODU.
‘The program had nothing to do with our school,’ they told her.
ODU gave her a certificate noting Damion’s time on campus, but informed her that even though ODU promoted the study abroad and offered college credit for it, the school had zero oversight or responsibility for the program.
As 8News has now learned, it was like many study abroad programs and was offered by a third party vendor.
“No one cares what’s going on with the programs as long as they are getting paid,” said Dabney.
8News has found for an industry that attracts more than 300,000 students each year, study abroad programs are largely unregulated.
Dabney began to dig deeper into these programs and learned of other tragedies like her son’s.
“I had no idea until after Damion that so many kids had died,” she said.
It prompted Dabney to take her story to the state capitol and get a bill passed.
With her help, Virginia recently created set guidelines for study abroad programs.
The guidelines cover a process for higher education in approving and evaluating the study abroad programs. The guidelines also address health and safety issues.
“Damion’s death might save someone else’s child’s life,” Dabney said.
Still, Dabney and other mothers say the guidelines don’t go far enough. The guidelines do nothing for Virginians enrolled at colleges out of state.
She advises students and parents considering a study abroad to ask questions.
“Find out if the study abroad program is really with the school,” she explained. “What is their emergency plan if something happens with your child? Is there an evacuation plan?”
She also advises you ask about insurance. A tiny box she checked off just before her son departed for Peru ended up proving critical in getting her son’s body home for a proper burial.
“Checking a box when you travel for insurance,” insisted Dabney. “My thought was he might lose a bag, so I checked a box where you pay an extra $30. There are families who can’t get their kids back.”
8News reached out to Rolling and the study abroad program but got no response.